How to Help Someone Overcome an Eating Disorder

How to Help Someone Overcome an Eating Disorder

Supporting a person with an eating disorder is a difficult task that requires patience and empathy. It's not always easy, but getting educated about eating disorders can inform how you support the person you care about.

How to Help Someone Overcome an Eating Disorder
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A person with an eating disorder might follow an extreme diet, count calories obsessively, exercise compulsively, binge eat or vomit after eating. These behaviors can be confusing and frightening to someone who loves a person with an eating disorder.

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

There are a number of different types of eating disorders, and most involve an obsession with food and appearance. The disorder occupies a considerable amount of time and interferes with health, relationships, and goals.

Research is still working to identify what causes eating disorders and how we can prevent and treat them. There are a number of factors believed to contribute to the development of eating disorders, including genetics, personality type, history of trauma and cultural contributions like media.

A common misperception is that people with eating disorders are driven by the desire to control their weight. Concerned friends and family might mistakenly believe that someone with an eating disorder cares only about calories and exercise. But, at its core, an eating disorder is a mental health disorder, and a reflection of a battle with big emotions and a lack of healthy coping tools.

Someone with an eating disorder doesn't desire to be thin. Instead, they use disordered eating to control and distract from the feelings that come along with being engaged in the world around them. Many people with eating disorders are not taught to acknowledge or talk about feelings. A history of perfectionism, obsessive thinking and impulsivity is linked with eating disorders.

Types of Eating Disorders

• Anorexia Nervosa

o People with anorexia starve themselves to lose weight or maintain a low weight. Anorexia might involve eating rituals like eating only certain colors of food or chewing each bite of food a certain number of times.

o A person with anorexia has a distorted self-perception that causes them to analyze and find fault with their body.

o Someone with anorexia may be considered extremely thin by most people, but see themselves as overweight when they look in the mirror.

• Bulimia Nervosa          
o People with bulimia can consume excessive amounts of food, a behavior called binging. Then, they purge by forcing themselves to vomit.

o A person with bulimia may also take drugs like laxatives, diuretics or stimulants with the hopes that these drugs will cause weight loss.

o Skipping meals and over-exercising might also be present in a person with bulimia.

o It might not be visible that a person is living with bulimia, because even with these behaviors, a person can maintain a normal weight.

• Binge Eating Disorder

o As with bulimia, a person with binge eating disorder has compulsive episodes of binging.

o A person with binge eating disorder experiences intense shame, guilt and self-hatred after binging.

• Pica

o A person with pica craves non-food substances like soil, chalk or wood chips.

o Sometimes a person with pica craves a food substance, but eats it in a way that could cause harm, like eating a box of corn starch.

o A person with pica will continue to perform this behavior even though it’s not culturally or socially acceptable.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Friends and family of people with eating disorders often say that their loved ones changed in small ways over time. Yet, many times the changes happened so slowly that no one became concerned until the eating disorder had gone too far.

• Signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:
 Eating slowly
 Avoiding meals
 Avoiding certain foods
 Suddenly developing food allergies
• New rules about eating
 Eating in secret
 Talking often about their body or appearance
 A sudden interest in exercise
 Frequent colds
 Menstrual irregularities
 Dizzy spells
 Thinning hair
• Frail appearance

While eating nutritious foods, avoiding junk food and getting exercise are all positive habits, when they become obsessive and interfere with relationships, school or previously enjoyed activities, this could be a sign of an eating disorder.

Consequences of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can affect a person’s health negatively in many ways. Ironically, people with eating disorders are fixated on how they look, yet the eating disorder often chips away slowly at their appearance.

Anorexia can cause dry skin, bad breath, body hair, and sunken eyes. People with bulimia can experience visible dental damage from repeated vomiting. Eating disorders can lead to muscle atrophy and fluid retention.

A person with an eating disorder is also at risk of developing a substance addiction. Eating disorders and addiction disorders share many similarities including, genetic factors, personality traits, and difficulty coping. When a person with both substance use disorder and eating disorder seeks treatment, it’s important to address both issues instead of treating the eating disorder independently.

Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder

It’s hard for friends and family to sit by as their loved one with an eating disorder deteriorate before their eyes. When you are ready to talk to your loved one about your concerns, do so in a calm environment when you are both ready to talk. Begin by asking questions and identifying how the person feels about their behaviors and their results.

Because of many people with eating disorders have trouble identifying their emotions, it can be helpful to set a good example by being open and vulnerable during this conversation. Let your loved one know that you want to help, and also show that you are willing to learn more about their eating disorder so that you can be supportive and knowledgeable.

Supporting Recovery from Eating Disorders

Many people mistakenly avoid talking about food, eating and feelings when in the presence of someone seeking treatment for eating disorders. If your loved one is seeking treatment for an eating disorder, normalizing food, eating, and feelings can be beneficial to their recovery and help them build positive associations with food and eating.

People in recovery will be triggered to perform their eating disorder compulsions, even while in recovery. Ask a person what their triggers are, so you can help avoid them or cope with them when they are present.

Self-esteem and eating disorders are closely related. By improving a person’s self-esteem, you can promote their recovery from an eating disorder. Compliment them often on their personality, sense of humor and smarts, and avoid making any positive or negative comments about the person’s body or appearance.

Encourage your loved one to avoid places that might promote unhealthy ideas of what bodies should be. Social media, in particular, can be harmful to people who have low self-esteem.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

One of the most supportive actions you can take is to encourage your loved one to seek treatment for their eating disorder. Treatment for eating disorders can be outpatient with a doctor and therapist or inpatient in a rehab facility.

This can be a difficult and traumatic transition for someone with an eating disorder. The disorder helps them cope with difficult feelings and may feel like a friend to them. Leaving the disorder behind makes them vulnerable to the unknown discomfort that lies ahead. Your presence throughout this difficult transition can make a person with an eating disorder feel safe.

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